IRVINE, Calif. – When Aaron Cervantes made his debut for Orange County SC last March against New Mexico United, OCSC Head Coach Braeden Cloutier knew very well the young man he was entrusting with his first professional minutes.
After all, Cloutier had first gotten to known Cervantes when he and Cloutier’s son were competing on the same side in youth soccer aged 10 years old.
“I saw some attributes in him. he’s very coachable and ambitious, and hard-working and driven, and those were qualities that I knew we wanted to bring into Orange County,” Cloutier told USL Championship announcer Mike Watts on the 3 Honest Lads podcast. “When I took over as Head Coach and [President of Soccer Operations & General Manager] Oliver [Wyss] and [Owner] James [Keston] said this is our goal, this is our mission, I said, this is the No. 1 player we need to bring in.”
Three months after Cloutier’s promotion from assistant to Head Coach for Orange County SC in December 2017, Cervantes was signed to OCSC’s senior squad as the youngest player in club history. Since then the young goalkeeper has quickly gained attention from a wider audience, earning a place last year in the United States U-17 National Team squad for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Brazil and training with OCSC partner Rangers FC in Scotland this offseason.
The signing at the time was a sign of the change in philosophy that was being introduced at Orange County organizationally. Yes, the club’s primary focus was to be a serious contender to claim the USL Championship year-in and year-out, but it also wanted to function more like a top club around the rest of the world, where player development is key to financial success.
“If you look at the history of soccer, the truly only way to make a real business concept out of it is by producing your own players and selling them on at the right time,” Wyss told Watts. “Obviously, the American model a lot of the time is about franchise value. The USL franchise values have increasingly gone up, which is great, but we wanted to make sure it’s not just about franchise value, it’s actually about developing these young players and then moving them on, so we’re looking at these players as assets, and that has worked out really, really well.”
Cervantes has now been joined in Orange County’s squad by Francis Jacobs, whose signing last year aged 14 years old made him the youngest male professional player in the history of the game in the United States. The club also last year added Diego Lopez, whom OCSC had previously tried to bring aboard at the same time as it signed Cervantes, only for Lopez to elect to head to Atlanta United FC’s Academy at the time.
“Diego opted to go to the MLS club, which we had no problem with, but fortunately for us he’s come back to Southern California, we were able to sign him,” said Cloutier.
Lopez hasn’t yet made his official debut for Orange County, but when play returns this year it’s unlikely that day will be far off. And while it might initially seem like a stretch of the imagination to envision Orange County becoming the American version of some of the world’s top clubs, it’s absolutely the aim of everyone from Keston on down to have Orange County thought of in the same vein as a club like Dutch giant Ajax, where success on the field and high-quality player development go hand-in-hand.
“I think that’s the kind of goal we want in our club, to ultimately get to that level,” Cloutier told Watts. “For me, like Oliver mentioned, winning, there’s no compromise.
“[But] as this grows and more players come in and we give them more minutes and they’re developing, and then eventually we move them on, then we can become that club like an Ajax or a Barcelona in this country.”